At least 60 different boats and flotation devices ranging from canoes and kayaks to rafts and inner tubes traveled roughly 8 miles down the Chehalis River on Saturday during a beloved annual river run that first began 43 years ago.
One of the founders who was on hand Saturday described the creation of the tradition as “a bunch of hippies in a canoe.”
Jim Merrill, Terrance “Klarantz” Wear and Tom Humphrey all lived together in the Pe Ell area at the time of the run’s inception, and their mutual friend, Al Pickett, had come over and asked what they were going to do that day.
They grabbed some “party materials,” Merrill recalled, “and the four of us hopped in a canoe and off we went. And we had a great time.”
Someone suggested that they make the river excursion an annual event, Merrill said, “and two of us really kept at it for a few years until we just decided we didn’t need to keep at it. It had its own life.”
Merrill, now in his 70s, is the last surviving member of that group of four who founded the Pe Ell River Run. Wear died in May 2020. Merrill joined members of Wear’s family visiting from Alaska and Indiana in spreading Wear’s ashes in the Chehalis River before Saturday’s run.
“They came to spread ashes and ride the river because father and grandfather had always talked about all of them coming, and he (Wear) chose to leave first,” Merrill said.
With two or more people per boat, Merrill estimates that somewhere between 100 and 150 people took part in this year’s Pe Ell River Run.
“Our fantasy was to go for 5,000 people, but we live in a small town so I figure 100 people is good,” Merrill said.
While safety hasn’t always been a priority for those riding the river, especially in the early years of the event, nowadays participants all keep an eye on each other to ensure that everyone gets to the finish line at Rainbow Falls safely.
“Everybody really watches everybody else, and if someone struggles on the river, someone is always ready to help the other. Always,” Merrill said. “It doesn’t matter what the situation is — if they’re in trouble, somebody helps.”
Very little about the Pe Ell River Run has changed since it began 43 years ago, Merrill said, aside from some changes to the river itself following the 2007 flood and a shift in launch sites from Shields Hole to a property owned by Kevin Randol.
“He (Randol) needs credit for all the work he’s done on a route to the river,” Merrill said. “And he welcomes us year after year.”
The route from Pe Ell to Rainbow Falls is roughly 8 miles by car. By boat, it can take anywhere between three hours and all day, depending on the river level. This year, Merrill said, was more on the slow side — but that didn’t take anything away from the experience.
“It’s a true form of innocent fun,” Merrill said.
While Merrill said that he, Wear, Humphrey and Pickett can be credited with starting the tradition of floating the Chehalis River in April, it’s taken on a life of its own. The event has no managers, no organizers. Just community members coming together for a good time on the river.
“Fourty-three years is a long time,” Merrill said. “It started just for fun and I am surprised it’s gone so long, but I’m really glad it has its own life.”